Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 14)

Chapter 24 
Venice. 10th December 1634

The night was unusually mild for early December and the breeze coming through some of the half-open windows was not unduly cold. It was strong enough however to occasionally prise apart the heavy winter drapes allowing the sound of laughter and music to escape and drift from the first floor salon down to the waiting boatmen huddled around a charcoal brazier on the quay-side below. Inside the gaming room of the San Traveso casini, a number of cardgames were in progress with men and women darting from table to table. All were dressed in the finest silks, the women’s dresses particularly flimsy given the time of year. Anonymity was ensured with the fact that everybody was wearing their most elaborate masks. The atmosphere was heady and sparkled with the risks of the night.
“Signor Mocenigo do you enjoy the game of Basseta ?”
The tall dark haired wig-less man with a small black velvet mask covering his eyes turned to face a slim-shouldered woman. She had huge hennaed tresses of hair falling down across those shoulders to partially conceal full protruding breasts that were only just contained by the light silk dress she wore. Lifting his gaze from her breasts, deliberately slowly, he noted the fine jaw line and the flirting eyes framed by a jewel encrusted leopard face mask. She let out a purring noise as their eyes met.
“I enjoy a gamble, Madam, however you have me at a disadvantage. How did you know my name?”
She moved closer to whisper in his ear and at the same time lightly and quickly traced the old duelling scar that stretched across the lobe with her tongue. The hairs at the back of his neck bristled and he bent slightly, to be met by the rising aroma of her jasmine- scented perfume which drew him ever downwards to the welcome of her bosom. “The doorman could not resist my charms. I knew that you came here and asked him to point you out.”
Pietro Mocenigo was reluctant to break off his downward spiral. “Of that I have no doubt but you still have me at a disadvantage. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
She ignored the question by pretending to be interested in the current deal of cards. The game over she turned taking Pietro’s arm. Behind them rose the murmurs of disappointment as the fat banker raked in his profits at one side of the table. She led him to a darkened corner of the room. “How risky a zuogar are you prepared to take Seignor Mocenigo?”
Pietro brushed the back of his hand across her upper bodice as he stretched to pick up a glass of wine. He was pleased to see that her nipples became instantly erect. He held her unwavering gaze. “It depends on the game, Madam, that we are playing.”
She used the rim of her own glass to push up one of the erect nipples further. Taking his arm again she directed him out of the salon. “I have taken a room here. My own private ridotto as it were. You call the game.”
Pietro threw a quick glance back at the friends he had come with. They were fully occupied in their own pursuits and did not notice him leave the gaming room and follow the leopard woman up the stairs to the second floor. As she stopped in a doorway the flickering candles in the room beyond gave her an even greater feline presence. She entered and when he followed her, he saw that she stood beside an elaborately canopied bed. “Close the door, and get yourself a glass of wine.” She pointed to a corner table and he did what he was told.
Turning with the glass in his hand, he spilt some of its wine when suddenly surprised by a completely naked black girl crossing the room from the other side. He stood mesmerised as the girl proceeded to move behind the leopard woman and undo her dress and corset so that they slipped to the floor. Pietro watched as the small black hands pulled the long tresses of hair aside to liberate the thrusting breasts and then continue downwards drawing the leopard lady’s pantaloons over slim hips and down to the floor. The black girl did not move from her position behind and with her hands then began to massage the leopard woman’s body, starting with the breasts and dropping lower and lower with smaller and smaller circular movements to her pelvis twisting the tight curls of pubic hair in her fingers. Both women began to sway and emit a low pitched growl in unison. 
Pietro watched in silence as the leopard lady - her mask still in place - brought her arms behind to hold the black girl’s buttocks At the same time she arched her back and separated her thighs to allow the slim black hands delve beyond the pudendum to find her sex. Pietro found himself fully aroused as he watched the fingers expose the leopard lady’s own pink shaft and begin rubbing it gently erect. He moved forward but she shook her head to stop him. With that the entwined bodies recoiled towards the bed and spent, with Pietro still watching, the next half-hour pleasuring each other until both collapsed apart in mutual ecstasy. At that point, still panting heavily, the young black girl slid off the bed and came to stand in front of Pietro. She then proceeded to remove all his clothes. Fully naked with his erect shaft throbbing with small jerking movements he wanted to take her there. But before he could hold her she had placed a pigskin sheath over his penis and tied a ligature tightly around its base. With that she turned and with exaggerated movements of her hips walked back towards the bed. Stopping she bent forward and slid one hand between her legs to spread the gates of her tunnel. The bright pink hue of its engorged secrets undulated with each gyration of her buttocks. 
The leopard woman also slid off the bed and from a position on the floor beneath the young girl’s legs, beckoned Pietro on. “Come my brave gambler, its your game now.”
He moved forward and mounted the black girl from behind and it was only when he felt for and held her pubescent breasts that he realised she was so young. He thought of stopping but the leopard woman took hold of his testicles in one hand and at the same time pulled his buttocks forward with the other. For Pietro the agony of waiting was over and it was not long before he exploded with a force he had rarely felt before. With the release he collapsed to his knees, straddling the leopard woman below. The young girl stood up and smiled down at both of them.
“Thank you Sukema, you may retire now.” The leopard purred. As Pietro lay to one side panting watching the black girl leaving the leopard woman tightened the ligature ensuring that his cock remained erect. She looked into his eyes. “A pretty young thing. Don’t you think? So much skill and not yet fourteen. Now let me show you what an older women requires from a primed buck as yourself.’

It was much later when they both fell back, spent, on the pillows of the bed. The leopard woman loosened the ligature and removed the pigskin sheath emptying its contents into a nearby glass. “I hope you are not fully depleted. You have yet to meet Sukema’s sister. The three of us will roast those balls of yours.”
Pietro flushed slightly and with rising anger at being toyed with, reached over and pulled off the leopard lady’s mask. He was disappointed to find he still did not recognise her. She saw his distress but was not about to satisfy his curiosity.
“I am friend of both England and Spain and an enemy of Richelieu. I know that you are shortly to leave for the Court of Saint James as the bailio of the Grand Seignoria.”
Pietro looked at her, puzzled by her French accent, but said nothing. 
She continued, “I have contacts with the highest level in those kingdoms, which if cultivated properly could be enormously useful for your career.”
Pietro got up from the bed and going to the small cabinet basin washed himself down with a flannel towel. The base of his penis was hurting badly. He rubbed it ruefully as he turned to look back at her. “And why, my feline courtesan, would you do all this for me?”
The leopard woman drew up the bedclothes around her as the cold night air drove her body heat before it. She hissed at his none too subtle insult. This young man had a lot to learn about the ways of the world, she thought to herself. Time to begin his education. “I know that you are searching for the spy of the Sant’Iago order who covets the hitherto secret legacy of the Angelicks.”
Pietro was flabbergasted at her knowledge and did not try to hide it from the woman. 
She smiled. “I also know, my dear boy, that you are not a member of the Angelicks and that you are doing this as a favour to your uncle.”
The young scion of the Mocenigo family could barely stop himself from nodding his head in affirmation. “What concern of it is yours?” How his penis hurt.
“I know also that you are a pragmatic man and that your career is of more importance than the pursuit of some ancient legacy. The King of England is my confident and in return for me giving you the name of the spy I want your assurance that you will tell me what the legacy consists of.”
Pietro walked to the window and looked down at the canal below where the last of the night revellers were leaving. He did not look back at her as he spoke. “In all honesty I do not know. As you have rightly pointed out I am not privy to any of the Order’s secrets. But . . .” Pietro paused, “ I am sure I could find out if your offer of help is genuine.”
The leopard woman got out of bed and went to a small bureau. She brought a small glass container to where Pietro stood and gently rubbed its contents onto the base of his penis. The pain disappeared almost miraculously and he found himself getting erect again. He withdrew from the window and pulled her back to the bed and it was late morning when he awoke to find a clothed Sukema and an even younger girl serving them breakfast. After he had finished eating he allowed them to bathe and towel him before dressing to leave. He completed his disguise by donning the mask again and cloaking his identity with a tabarro and three-cornered hat. 
The leopard woman watched until he reached the door. “The spy’s name is Dom Djivo Slavujovic a Knight of the Sant’Iago Order. He is at present a captive in Algiers.”
Pietro digested the information realising that his uncle would be pleased with the news. He blew her a kiss from the doorway. “Until tomorrow then my hunter of the night. I will try and get the information you want.”
The leopard woman drew up the cat’s mask to her face. “I am sure you will, dear boy. My pride will be waiting for you.”

Chapter 25
Constantinople. 11th January 1635

They had arranged to meet Catherine at the famous Bedouin sherbet shop near the fountain of Mahmud Pasha. This would hopefully attract little attention due to the scores of veiled women who regularly visited the shop and the agreed condition that they would all come without their usual escort of retainers. Dermico O’Driscoll, the Patriarch Loukaris and another older man had made their way up from the quays where they had landed after the short trip from Pera. The weather was foul and the three were by now thoroughly wet as they had stood, shivering, for a good hour in the cold squalls that funnelled down the narrow street. The shelter provided by the overhanging second stories of the wooden houses was useless in the face of horizontal sheets of rain. The arranged meeting time had passed and they wondered whether Catherine would come.
“Dom Dermico, Patriarch Loukaris and I are going to get out of this miserable weather and have ourselves a sherbet. Would you like one?” The older man said in a very fed up manner.
“No thank you, Dom Miho. You two go ahead. I will wait a little longer here.” Dermico watched as his companions made their way across the roadway which by this stage was a torrent of mud and water. Loukaris in particular walked with a laboured gait. Although nursing a fever he had insisted on coming as Catherine had implied that the meeting would not take place if he was not present. The two old men were halfway across the street when Dermico saw the danger first and left out a shout.“ Dom Miho, watch out!”
The two had their heads bowed and covered as they walked against the stormwinds and did not seem to hear or see the troop of siphai horsemen approaching at speed. It was too late by the time a second shouted warning from Dermico finally alerted them to the danger. The older man could not extract himself from the mud quickly enough and Loukaris reacting quicker tried to pull him out of the way. The horsemen made no attempt to take evasive action and the flying hooves of their mounts appeared to pound both into the ground. Dermico ran to them. “Dom Miho, are you all right?” Dermico was relieved to see his friend move.
“I think so. No bones broken that I can feel although my left flank is hard hit.”
Dermico turned to the Greek Patriarch who was holding his arm. “And you Patriarch Loukaris. Are you injured?”
The monk stood up unsteadily. “I think my arm is broken but I’ll survive.”
Dermico helped Dom Miho to his feet and noticed the tear of his tunic where the hoof had impacted. There was no blood nor was the skin broken when he inspected his side although the hoof mark was clearly visible.
Dom Miho was relieved. “I think I will also live although it is very painful.”
Just at that moment three other horses drew up. Catherine was nearly fully veiled with a small dark-coloured peaked visor protruding from her forehead. She alighted easily but her two companion eunuchs, remained mounted although it looked as if their horses would welcome a respite from their weight. She came to where the men were standing. “Dom Dermico O’Driscoll is it? What happened here?”
Dermico immediately recognised the slight Irish accent. “And you must be Catherine Cullen. The famous woman surgeon. My friends here were knocked down by - ” He was surprised as Catherine ignored his greeting and brusquely pushed past him. He turned to see that she was rushing to help Dom Miho who had suddenly collapsed to the ground again. All colour had drained from his face and he was clutching his side. Catherine lifted his tunic and inspected his side. Dermico rushed to him and knelling down cradled his friend’s head. “Dom Miho. What ails you?” He looked at Catherine and was not relieved by her urgent expression. 
“We do not have much time,"she said quietly. "He is bleeding internally. Where can we take him?” Catherine shouted over another squall.
Dermico was unsure. “I . . . I do not know.”
Kyril Loukaris stepped forward and it was only then that Catherine noticed his broken arm. “We will take him to the Patriarchate. Surgeon Cullen send one of your eunuchs to warn them.”
Catherine moved to inspect his arm but Loukaris shook his head, looking down at the stricken man on the ground. Catherine ordered one of the eunuchs to dismount and help her lift Dom Miho onto his horse. She dispatched the other as she pulled roughly at Dermico’s sleeve. “Come on O’Driscoll, help me, if I am to save your friend.”

The nuns of the small Monastery of Saint George in the grounds of the Patriarchate were waiting at the door when they arrived. They had prepared a small room to which Dom Miho was carried. They were dismayed that Loukaris was also injured but he reassured them that he was all right for the present and insisted that they give all their attention to Catherine in her work. Dermico was excluded and it was an hour before the door into the corridor opened. Catherine came out, no longer veiled. Her silk bodice and breeches were covered in blood. “He has lost a lot of blood and his fate is with Allah now.”
Dermico noted the Islamic appeal and tried looking into the shadows of the room. “What happened in there?”
Catherine was cleaning her arms with a moist flannel. Her reply was clinical. “The trampling had ruptured his spleen. That is why he was bleeding internally. We had to remove it to stem the flow but he has lost too much blood I fear. He is unconscious.”
Dermico slumped forward on the narrow corridor bench. He buried his head in his hands shaking it from side to side. “I tried to warn them.”
Catherine took pity on her fellow Irishman. “I am sorry I could not do more. The next few hours will be critical.” 
Dermico looked up at her a hint of accusation darkening his features. “Should you have taken the knife to him?”
Catherine smarted at the words, regretting her earlier feelings of sympathy. “Ruptures of the spleen are common in lands where tertian fever is present. They are usually enlarged and it often takes less force than a flying hoof to cause it. Indeed as has been the custom from Bysantium times the elite personal palace guard of axemen of the Sultan the muteferrikas, have their spleens removed deliberately to prevent such an occurrence. The surgery involved is straightforward but in your friend’s case it was too late. I think O’Driscoll that our meeting is now over. Good day to you. The nuns, I am sure will show you the way out.” She gathered her outer garments and was making for the cell door. 
Dermico rushed to block her. “I am sorry Miss Cullen. Its only that Dom Miho is the father of a friend of mine. Somebody we both know.”
Catherine stopped. She wasn’t sure whether Dermico was being truthful or not. “Who might that be?”
Dermico paused for a moment knowing the probable impact of what he was going to say. “Djivo Slavujovic. Dom Miho is his father. I travelled to Constantinople from Italy on one of his ships.”
Catherine suddenly went pale and visibly shook. Dermico stood up and led her - without protest - back to the bench. “I am sorry Miss Cullen. I should have told you earlier. I know of your relationship with Djivo. Very little escapes the notice of our spies.”
Catherine collected herself quickly. She immediately regretted her obvious response to the mention of Djivo. She had been right to mistrust O’Driscoll and moved away from his side. “Yes. You should have. Why was he with you today? What possible interest could he possibly have had in the fate of the Baltimore captives?” Catherine’s tone became sarcastic. “Was not that the reason for our intended discussion today O’Driscoll?”
“Yes. But Dom Miho wanted to come. I had told him about Djivo and - ” Before Dermico could fully explain one of the nuns came out into the corridor and whispered in Catherine’s ear. She left him and went inside the cell, reappearing a few minutes later. “You will have to wait here a little longer. I must attend to the Patriarch’s arm.”

It was some time before she rejoined him. Dermico had winced at the muffled moans of Loukaris as his arm was reset. Catherine was visibly angry. “Your spies. What did you mean by that?”
As Dermico answered he watched her face very carefully for any flickers of recognition, “Like Djivo, I am also a member of the Sant’Iago Order. Did he ever mention me or his mission for the order?”
Catherine forced a puzzled frown on her face. “Mission. What mission? What do you mean, O’Driscoll?” She knew for her own safety that the next few answers were crucial and despite the isolation she felt she would have to remain resolute for Djivo’s sake. The conversation lasted for the best part of an hour. Catherine told O’Driscoll of the conditions of her release and the fact that all being well Djivo would join her in Constantinople in about three years. 
Dermico cursed to himself and muttered under his breath about this delay being ‘too long’. He accepted the confirmation of what he had already heard from Algiers and satisfied himself that the Cullen woman appeared to know nothing of Slavujovic’s mission. She was therefore of little use, or threat, to him. As he stood to leave his voice was cold and formal. “I have to thank you for all your help, Miss Cullen. Be assured that I will endeavour to bring Djivo safely to you. Do you want your family in Ireland informed of your safety?”
Catherine although relieved that the interrogation was over recognised that O’Driscoll’s demeanour had changed. “No. I am here as a free woman and I will wait. Ireland is a fading memory. Thank you.”
With that O’Driscoll started towards the small wooden door at the end of the corridor. He stopped as he heard one of the nuns rushing out of the cell and shouting for Catherine. She rushed into the room but came out again soon after. She looked at him. There were tears starting to form beneath her eyes.
“I am sorry. Dom Miho has just died. There was too much loss of blood. I could do very little for him.”
Dermico sighed but did not come and comfort her. “I will come to pick up his body tomorrow and arrange for its transport back to Ragusa. Good afternoon.”

With that O’Driscoll was gone and Catherine felt more alone than at any time in her life. The searing tears cascading down her cheeks washed the blood that stained her neck onto to her cotton shirt.

©R.Derham 2001,2009

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rihla (Journey 3): Iran – Ghayb on my Mind

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about Iran.

After 4,000 kilometres of travelling the high plateau and even higher mountains of Iran and touching ever so briefly on invasion and erosion-spared remnants of 4,000 years of history that is Persia my overwhelming sense of the place and the people, beyond the enormous impact of the physical and socio-economic geography, is that of ghayb, the unseen. (I am enormously grateful to Jason Elliot’s evocative and provocative book on Iran, Mirrors of the Unseen for introducing me to this concept and encapsulating what I could feel but not vocalise adequately while there. This is a book worth reading!)

Beginning with the descent into Imam Khomeini International Airport and the chaos that is the traffic and smog-enshrouded hell of modern Tehran and ending by interrupting my journey home to spend an equally chaotic Sunday afternoon at the Shah ‘Abbas Remaking of Iran Exhibition at the British Museum I am left with an overwhelming sensation of hidden voices whispering in my ear. Voices that are in equal amounts welcoming, exciting, colluding, revolutionary, sensual, and yet so pragmatic that any previously held perceptions of Iran are, at this point, spinning in a dust devil somewhere on the outskirts of Yazd.

Arabic poetry and theology has a word for these voices – hatif – yet in older Persian literature the equivalent concept is soroush, which has its origins in the Sraosha divinity of Avestan and Zoroastrian traditions where he is associated with ‘good words’, the standard-bearer of truth, and the guide who accompanies the soul across the Chinvat bridge of judgement. I dwell on this concept a little as when travelling with my not-so-silent Shirazi guide (his pet-dislikes in descending order were non-engineered roads, mullahs and Turks all of which appeared to loom larger in his perceptive landscape the further north we travelled from Shiraz!) on the road to Takht-e Soleiman he began reciting Hafez,
Biyaar baadeh keh doosham soroush-e aalam-e ghayb

Navid daad keh: ‘aamm ast feize rahmat-e ou

He translated,
Bring wine, for the soroush of the Unseen world

Brought me the news that His mercy is all-encompassing.

The next time I heard these same words explained to me was at a No Ruz (New Year) party on March 20 in Tehran, but this time from a pirated video version of Iranian Fusion music from Los Angeles. I also saw on television Barrack Obama’s welcome but conditional No Ruz message, and regretted enormously the lost opportunity of good will being enough in itself. The West should dismiss any concerns about Iranian nuclear or anti-Zionist intentions and instead listen to the poetry. Poetry is the lifeblood of Iranians, where those secret voices guide the soul. Given the resources at their disposal, the present leadership I fear, in maintaining a privileged elite (such as the children of mullahs and martyrs of the Iraq-Iranian war), have lost the support of the common man and are but a punctuation in a long history of the Persian people searching for the Truth.